Well both! There’s no denying it’s a very unspectacular ruin and whichever way you look at it it doesn’t really amount to much more than a pile of old bricks with a couple of sandstone slabs scattered around for contrast. It’ll be a snowy day in Siem Reap before it’ll rival Angkor Wat or Ta Prom – “Ak Yum postcards – only 1 dollar!?” – but it is certainly one of the most historically important sites in the whole area.
The current rubble pile, lying on the edge of the ‘Western Baray‘ just past SR Airport, dates a whole 500 years before Bayon and there’s evidence that the earliest temple on the site was built in the early 7th century, some 250 years before the purported ‘ first pyramid temple’ of Bakong was initiated! (Ak Yum was probably originally a 5 level pyramid construction with a brick tower on the top and pre-dates the Jayarvarman II pyramid style temple of Rong Chen on Phnom Kulen by nearly 200 yrs too.) A re-used sandstone block in the 8th century construction also has an inscription dating to the year 609.
So if the earliest temple on the Ak Yum site dates to early 7th century it makes it not only one of the earliest Khmer temples in the Siem Reap area but indeed in the entire country! This is the change-over period between Funan and Chenla and only a handful of sites can confidently be dated to this period: some of the northern group at Sambor Prei Kok and Hanchei, (Kompong Cham), and Ashram Maha Rosei both usually attributed to King Bhavarvarman (560 to c. 590). 609 is the reign of Mahendravarman – brother of Bhavarvarman – and it’s plausible to think he set up a temple at Ak Yum as an alternative to his brother’s capital of Bhavapura, generally thought to be in the Sambor Prei Kok region?
Anyway with the subsequent king, Ishnavarman, upgrading Sambor Prei Kok to impressive levels the Siem Reap area seems to have been put on the back-burner until Jayarvarman I came along at the end of the 7th c. and constructed an entirely new capital city named Purandarapura near what is now the Western Baray of Siem Reap. A renovated Ak Yum was probably his state temple as well as that of his daughter, Queen Jayadevi, (though she may have renamed the city Aninditapura?), since an inscription dating to 713, during her reign, was also found here.
This temple, along with neighbouring sites such as Prei Khmeng, formed a large complex known as Banteay Choeu, which appear to have been inhabited until the 11th century when the addition of the massive Western Baray flooded much of the area.
One of the most interesting Angkor temples from an archeological perspective but you’ll need a fair amount of imagination to appreciate a visit!
The superb early site of Sambor Prei Kok though, with it’s dozens of towers spread through the forest is included in our ‘Beyond Angkor‘ itinerary.